CAREER FEATURE

Moving from prison to a PhD

Nature spoke to three US researchers who have built academic careers after they were released.
Virginia Gewin is a science journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

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Graduation cap and gown

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Most applications to academic institutions around the world include a box to check if a student has a criminal history, but a ‘ban the box’ movement is now under way. Last year, the UK Universities and Colleges Admissions Services (UCAS) — which manages application to all British universities — dropped its criminal-history question. And in August, the US Common Application, used by 800 colleges and universities, removed the question — although individual institutions can still ask it.

A 2013 study from the RAND Corporation1, a think tank in Santa Monica, California, found that incarcerated individuals who participated in correctional education programmes were 43% less likely to return to prison after release than were those who did not.

Although 2.3 million people are currently in US prisons, fewer than 5% of people get university degrees — making them 8 times less likely to complete their education than the general public. Fewer still pursue PhDs. Nature spoke to three US researchers who went from prison to PhD programmes to senior posts in academia, and who now aim to help others to find their academic footing.

CHRIS BEASLEY: Make connections

Post-prison education researcher at the University of Washington, Tacoma

Christopher Beasley

Credit: JustLeadershipUSA

I grew up poor in rural southern Illinois. By my mid-twenties, I had been arrested five times — mainly for drug possession. In total, I was behind bars for 1.5 years. Once I was out of prison, an uncle encouraged me to attend university. I enrolled at Lincoln Trails College in Robinson, Illinois. I was struggling with my drug addiction, but school kept me connected and moving towards the goal of finishing my bachelor’s of science degree, which I eventually received from the University of Minnesota in Duluth.

I was gay, and had been closeted my whole life, but I was now far enough from my hometown that I could make a fresh start. In Duluth, I stopped taking drugs and achieved emotional stability. I became an organizer for the campus queer community and got involved with public policy.

Psychologist Lara LaCaille at the University of Minnesota encouraged me to go to graduate school. I was so intimidated by research — I didn’t think I had good enough grades, skills or experience — that I paid extra to go to a private school, Roosevelt University in Chicago, Illinois, to do a master’s degree that didn’t require a thesis. I ended up writing one anyway, once I realized that research is simply a way to answer questions. I then attended laboratory meetings at DePaul University, Chicago, where researchers studied addiction and recovery. I began to see I was capable of becoming what I admired most — a university professor. Having received an F31 predoctoral fellowship from the US National Institutes of Health, I graduated with my PhD from DePaul in 2013.

While I was at DePaul, I actively searched for other university graduates who had been in prison, which was very challenging. Many of these people cover up their past because there is so much shame involved. In 2014, I started a Facebook group to provide a safe, comfortable space for these people to have conversations without shame or stigma. My first faculty position was at a small liberal institution, Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. Last year, the Facebook group became a bona fide non-profit organization, the Formerly-Incarcerated College Graduate Network. We currently have 1,000 members in 43 states. Around 118 of these have or are working toward a doctorate degree. Think of it as an alumni network without an institutional affiliation.

In Maryland, I’d realized I always wore long sleeves to cover my tattoos, to conceal a part of my life from my own incarceration. This kind of covering up involves the same sort of emotional labour as that involved in trying to hide being a gay man. After some soul searching, I changed my line of research to study what kind of career possibilities formerly incarcerated people imagine for themselves, and how university can help transformations. There are fewer than ten empirical studies on the transition from prison to university. Conventional researchers don’t think about this topic because they haven’t been through this experience.

In 2017, I moved to the University of Washington in Tacoma to work on social justice and prison education and co-founded a consortium of community colleges, universities and social-service professionals to support people in the state who were making the transition. We want to build a community, change society’s views of our community and develop public policy around education. Although that might seem like a lot, there are at least 200,000 people with a bachelor’s degree who have spent time in jail. We’ve only scratched the surface of the network and of this area of research.

STANLEY ANDRISSE: Create pathways

Endocrinologist at Howard University, Washington DC

Stanley Andrisse

Credit: Tchad Dublin Photography

I was first arrested as a 14-year-old boy. By 2006, with two previous felony drug convictions, I was in a courtroom in my early 20s, faced with 20 years to life in a Missouri prison for drug-trafficking charges. The prosecutor labelled me as a career criminal and essentially said I was worthless and there was no hope for me. I found that very damaging psychologically.

I was fortunate to have a mentor, biologist Barrie Bode at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, step into my life and see potential in me that I hadn’t. I met him when I was completing a bachelor’s of science degree at Lindenwood University in Saint Charles, Missouri, and was looking for a summer internship. He didn’t realize that I was facing prison. After he found out, he wrote a letter to the court in which he said that I had potential. I believe his character statement contributed to a shorter sentence for me, which was further reduced when I completed a drug-treatment programme.

While I was incarcerated, my father was losing his battle with type-2 diabetes. I was eager to learn more about the disease that was causing my dad to lose his toes, then feet. So Bode started sending me scientific articles, which helped to fuel my motivation to apply to graduate school and study medicine once I was out of prison. I applied to six biomedical graduate programmes, but I was rejected from all except Saint Louis University, for which Bode was on the admissions board. With his help, they offered me a second chance I don’t think I would have got otherwise. There are many barriers people like me must overcome to pursue an academic career, including often being a first-generation student with little knowledge of how graduate school works, feeling like prison time leaves a lasting mark on you and the gap in years since receiving a high-school diploma or graduation certificate.

Determined to be a different person, I completed a master’s in business administration and a PhD focused on diabetes and physiology. I did it in four years, and finished at the top of my class. Because I am black and have been in prison, I thought I had to be four times as good as anyone else. When applying for postdocs, I was fortunate enough to find out that Johns Hopkins University had ‘banned the box’ — they didn’t include a check box for criminal convictions. Hopkins is Maryland’s leading hirer of formerly incarcerated people. I did two years of a postdoc at Johns Hopkins before transitioning into a faculty role there. I’m now in a tenure-track position at Howard University in Washington DC.

We are in a state of mass incarceration in the United States, the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. Roughly 70 million Americans — almost one-third of the working population — have a criminal record. Around 25% of formerly incarcerated people do not have a high-school diploma or equivalent graduation certificate. Knowing how transformational education can be, I started From Prison Cells to PhD, a non-profit organization that currently works with 100 formerly incarcerated people each year. We provide resources, tools, support, mentoring and internships to help them to pursue their academic goals. We also continue to push academic institutions to ‘ban the box’. Our efforts helped to remove the criminal-history section from the Common Application, which is used by most US universities. In September, From Prisons to PhD was one of a five-member alliance — dubbed STEM Opportunities in Prison Settings (STEM-OPS) — to receive a 5-year, $5.2-million grant from the US National Science Foundation to develop accessible pathways for men and women into careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) who are, or were, incarcerated.

NOEL VEST: Value lived experience

Postdoc at Stanford University, California

Noel Adam Vest

Credit: L.A. Cicero, Stanford News Service

In 2003, my struggles with alcohol and drugs resulted in a 7-year prison sentence in Nevada for drug possession and identity theft, crimes that followed a spiral of addiction after my business and relationship failed at age 21. I began taking psychology courses in prison and, after my release, continued at the Columbia Basin College in Pasco, Washington, with the goal of becoming a drug and alcohol counsellor. Then an instructor told me that my writing ability could get me into graduate school.

I didn’t know what graduate school entailed, but this watershed moment started me on a scientific path. I pursued a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Washington State University in Richland, while working as a counsellor. Seeing how science influenced treatment opened my eyes to a new world, and I was accepted into graduate school at the university’s Pullman campus 2014.

Re-entering society is incredibly difficult, even more so when you bring the stigma of prison into academia. Some people might have been wary of me during my PhD, but they didn’t vocalize it. It’s the policies and paperwork that can make it clear that people like me don’t belong. For example, on an academic application, requests for criminal history are a subtle way of saying ‘you don’t belong in this profession’. Some graduate programmes include statements that clinical internships could be difficult to secure for applicants with a previous felony conviction — which can be enough to stop people before they even apply. Every step up the ladder, I faced a new form of impostor syndrome.

My personal experience has influenced my research at the intersection of substance use, pain and prison re-entry. There is a practicality that comes with lived experiences, such as insights into whether a certain type of treatment modality or research protocol will work. For example, incarceration-based therapeutic communities — substance-abuse treatment programmes designed to promote peer recovery through strict rules (known as the Snitch Program in most of the prisons I was in) — are the most common form of prison treatment for substance-use disorders. They reward inmate peers who hold each other accountable for their actions so they can progress through the levels of treatment, ending with release from jail. In reality, inmates game the system: they secretly make agreements about how they will tell on each other to advance a level in the programme. As a result, the literature suggests, and I agree, that reported successes of therapeutic communities are overinflated. This kind of ‘inside information’ is informed by lived experience in the prison system — which can help to inform future research protocols.

At Stanford University, I’ll be a postdoc working with psychologist Keith Humphreys to research the intersection of substance misuse, pain and prison re-entry. I would love to one day have my own lab and potentially recruit and hire graduate students and postdocs who also have lived experiences in the criminal-justice system. I hope to train as many formerly incarcerated scholars as possible. Incorporating diverse perspectives into research is so important.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03370-1

Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 12 November 2019: An earlier version of this feature mixed up the Formerly-Incarcerated College Graduate Network and the Tacoma Post-Prison Higher Education Coalition.

References

  1. 1.

    Davis, L. M. et al. Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education (Rand Corporation, 2013).

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